Missoula Mercantile in 1927

Called “the headquarters for the people that built early Missoula,” by longtime Missoula lawyer Ty Robinson, the Missoula Mercantile is shown here in 1927. 

R.H. McKay photograph courtesy of Pictorial Histories Publishing Co.

They called it a vacuo-pressure system and it was reputedly the finest around - not a new claim for the venerable Missoula Mercantile Co. in 1921.

For $11,000, an old system of overhead cables that carried money bags from 22 stations throughout the store to a central desk was replaced by a pump that sucked them through vacuum tubes, in four seconds or less.

On May 6, 1921, Vivian Troop sent the first carrier of money through the Merc's vacuo-pressure system.

By then, the store on the corner of Higgins Avenue and East Front Street that we know in 2010 as Macy's owned a long-established reputation as one of the biggest, busiest and most successful enterprises between Minneapolis and Seattle.

"The Merc was the place that people came to shop from all over the state," said Ty Robinson of Missoula, the Mercantile's lawyer from 1948 to 1970. "It was the linchpin of Missoula, no question about it."

Cincinnati-based Macy's Inc. announced Tuesday it is closing the Missoula store and four others from New Jersey to Boise, Idaho. The store that over the past three-plus decades has been known variously as the Bon Marche, Bon-Macy's and Macy's will be offered for sale or lease when it closes in March.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Robinson was charged with liquidating the Mercantile's wholesale grocery, hardware and farm implement divisions, as well as its various subsidiaries that included banks in Ronan, St. Ignatius, Kalispell and the Bitterroot and grain elevators throughout the state.

He doesn't claim to be a historian, but Robinson has studied the Merc's remarkable past and makes occasional presentations around town.

"It was really the headquarters for the people that built early Missoula," he said.

Andrew Hammond, Edward Bonner, Richard Eddy, Christopher Higgins, Marcus Daly, C.H. McLeod, Joseph Dixon and on - one way or another they all had a stake in the success of the Missoula Mercantile.

"The thing about the Missoula Merc you've got to remember, in its formative years they controlled the banks here, they controlled the water system, the light system," said Robinson. "They were in business when the (Northern Pacific) came through, and furnished the infrastructure.

" ‘The Octopus,' as I call it, had sawmills in eastern Washington, down into Salmon, Idaho, and up as far as Troy, and then, of course, the Anaconda Co.'s big sawmill in Bonner came about through the railroad being built."

When towns like Ravalli and Plains were established on the NP line, the Missoula Mercantile built stores there and assured their stability.

According to local historians, the precursor to the Missoula Merc was built in 1865 or 1866, a year or two after Missoula was founded, when Bonner, Eddy and Daniel Welch arrived by pack train from Walla Walla, Wash. They raised a small log building on West Front, just west of the current Florence Building, and called it Bonner and Welch.

Construction of a larger building at the present site of Macy's began in 1877, the same year that residents of Missoula frightened by Nez Perce Indians in their flight from federal troops found shelter in the half-finished store.

Hammond took charge of the new store, by then called Eddy, Hammond and Co.

Among those he recruited from his native New Brunswick to help was his nephew, McLeod, who arrived by stagecoach on March 29, 1880, and went to work at the store the next day.

The store was incorporated as the Missoula Mercantile Co. in 1885, and McLeod became store manager. He rose to vice president (1889) and president (1906) of the Missoula Mercantile enterprises, and receives much of the credit for building "The Octopus."

McLeod retired in 1941, but his son, Walter, took over the Missoula store until his own retirement in 1962. Walter died the following year, ending an era of McLeods in leadership positions of the Mercantile that stretched more than 80 years.

Allied Stores Corp. of New York bought the Missoula Mercantile in 1960, but retained its name until the Bon Marche bought it in 1978. It became Bon-Macy's in 1999, and Macy's in 2005.

Allied considered joining the exodus to the outskirts of Missoula in the 1970s, a thought that had downtown businessmen in arms. An earlier study of the central business district by a planning firm from Portland, Ore., had concluded that the economic future of downtown Missoula depended on the Merc.

Allied's plans "will have a decisive effect on downtown Missoula because if they stay, many other projects will then become feasible," John Toole, executive director of an organization of local businessmen, said in 1975. "Two parking structures now under consideration, plans for a civic center and the proposed Higgins Avenue Mall" will be affected by Allied's decision.

Reports at the time were that the Merc would stay put.

"Right now, for the first time in a long time, I'm feeling good about the downtown," Toole said.

Thirty-five years later, the latest news doesn't sit as well.

"This closes a chapter on a phase of Missoula's commercial history," Robinson said Tuesday. "It's a sad day for Missoula. It really is."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

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